The key issue in the trial was whether Ali was an advocate for the pirates or just a translator doing the best he could in a situation not of his own making. Jurors heard Ali talking on recorded phone calls with a negotiator, and also with Clipper Group’s CEO, Per Gullestrup. At one point, Ali declares, “I am the negotiator” and demands that all calls go through him. But the calls also show a friendly, conversational banter, with Gullestrup dropping Ali’s name the way one does with a longtime acquaintance, and Gullestrup testified that he built up a level of trust with Ali.
Ali’s lawyers sought to paint him as a friend of the U.S. government. Keith Barwick, an agent for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, testified that 10 years ago Ali approached him with information about a company he was working for in the U.S. The government put the business under investigation, and Ali became a confidential informant. The company had been selling counterfeit products, such as purses and watches, and Ali’s work helped lead to 10 convictions and more than $1 million in seized merchandise and money. Ali received $25,000 for his work from the government, Barwick said, adding that he was a good source.
Jurors also heard Ali telling a negotiator for the Clipper Group that the pirates are not bluffing and the time for negotiating was over. “Let them think about the crew also, otherwise they can lose not only the vessel but the crew also,” he says on the call.
But the ship’s captain, Andrey Nozhkin, who also participated in the call, testified that Ali whispered a comforting word to him after the call was over: “Bluffing.”
In his closing argument, defense attorney Matthew J. Peed, of the firm Clinton Brook & Peed, told jurors to ask themselves whether Ali wanted to bring about piracy and hostage-taking of the ship. He said that Ali never carried a gun, let crew members call their families and tried to help the hostages.
The trial coincided with the release of the Tom Hanks movie “Captain Phillips,” a docudrama about a different hijacking by Somali pirates that took place in 2009. Huvelle instructed jurors to not see the movie.